Tell me about the Alexander Technique
It was an early morning for me, on Sunday 19 July 2009, it was just 8am for me in the UK. I was very envious of Fran Engel who was calling from Hawaii at the time, which was 9pm for her. How I wished I could have been in Hawaii too, oh well, maybe one day.
I am very grateful to Fran for taking the time to talk with me. Our interview lasted just over one hour. It was fascinating to learn from an experienced teacher and writer on the technique. Fran has written numerous articles and books on the Alexander Technique. She also has a comprehensive blog on the Technique that is full of resources.
During our interview Fran explains the benefits to voice students and singers, as well as to those suffering from physical injury and sports injury. She also distinguishes the difference between the Alexander Technique and Pilates and Tai Chi and so on.
FRAN: My name is Fran Engel and I am an Alexander Technique teacher. I specialise in teaching learners in groups and writing about it. I love to teach musicians.
ALICE: How did you do that?
FRAN: Alexander Technique teaches people to undo what they learn by accident. When you want to refine a skill, how do you sift out what you want, exactly, from what you don’t want? The Alexander technique shows how to retain the valuable stuff, and leave the unnecessary stuff behind.
ALICE: That seems useful. What do Alexander teachers do?
“An Alexander teacher is a human gait lab; they’re fantastic observers for their
students – and they teach effortlessness” said Fran
FRAN: Before Alexander’s work was only taught in private lessons. Now people can learn quite a bit about the Alexander Technique by watching, reading and listening. Classroom-type work is just now spreading into the field of Alexander Technique. Studying Alexander Technique is like studying ourselves as if we are a musical instrument. Singers and actors do use their body as their instrument. Everyone should learn to play themselves.
ALICE: Can you explain how the Alexander Technique helps singers in particular?
FRAN: Well, anyone has to make sense of what their teachers tell them to do. People do little things, not productive things, to breath and sing at the same time. It pays off to breathe freely, especially if you are a singer. Singers carry unnecessary habits of breathing, posture and how they talk into their singing without realizing it, just like most people do. So then adding all these suggestions about learning to sing better on top of that – confusing.
—– Part Three —–
“The challenge is, how do we notice what we might not know we’re doing? Being
willing to experiment helps & knowing how to spot what is new. It’s very
easy to miss!” says Fran
ALICE: It’s unfamiliar?
FRAN: Yes, it would be unfamiliar, disorienting, strange, it would feel wrong. So any time when you are experimenting, when you feel something different or weird, it means you may have discovered something new.
ALICE: So how do we tell when something good is improving and it’s not just some weird thing?
FRAN: Well, success really means more result with less effort. You’re asking what is our criteria for success. After the experiment, we’d be asking ourselves, “Is it easier?”
Because what is new feels wrong, usually people will straight away put themselves back to a position that feels more familiar. When conducting experiments with Alexander Technique, we look for unnecessary things we’re doing automatically without noticing, an old routine in progress. Once the habit stops, we feel more lively and we can hear our voice free up. We’ve broken the chain of habit. So that’s how we know we did what we wanted to do.
ALICE: So, how do you do that?
FRAN: Well, it definitely works to get private lessons!
When you’re working with an Alexander teacher, you can rely on the teacher’s observations. To learn to use this for yourself, your own self-observation is the most important skill. Most of the time when people observe themselves, they don’t know what to say or do. It’s part of why people get self-conscious.
In my classes, we spend quite a bit of time on how to observe. I give students categories so they learn to describe. It helps to watch others too. These categories are four: quality, sequence, timing, and direction. The students go through these four. So we talk about how to come up with words for a quality of movement as we do something everybody does – such as walking. These words about quality are mostly adverbs. Because Sequence is a story, we tell stories about what comes first and next and what’s after that. To tell a story we sort and select for relative importance. Sometimes sequence can be a kind of “cause & effect.”
Then we do experiments about how to integrate a sense of timing with some moving around. Then for direction, we reveal a key about what Alexander Teachers call Primary Control. Its a principle of Alexander Technique about how effortlessness happens. Its best if you think of it as an experiment, rather than a perfect ideal to copy. We can try this experiment if you’d like?
ALICE: Let’s do that.
—– Part Four —–
FRAN: To conduct an experiment we usually need to know a few ground rules and we need to be able to ask good questions. Questions point to what we find.
In Alexander Technique the exercises and examples are not the content. The contents are abstract principles that can be applied in any situation. So, in Alexander Technique you would select a movement sort of as a baseline control, then you design an experiment. Alexander teachers select the movement for you because it doesn’t matter so much what movement you use. So I’m going to select a really simple and useful experiment here, then we’re going to see how it affects walking. You might get up and take a few steps and see if you can describe anything about how you walk before starting.
So, while you’re walking around, it’s handy to remember two facts:
1. Muscles contract & get shorter when they’re working. When they stop contracting, they naturally return to being longer. When muscles contract and pull against each other, you’ll feel a pulling sensation. When a muscle is working without conflict, it feels like nothing. You’re just moving.
2. When you learn something and it becomes a habit, the habit disappears. Habits disappear as they become innate. That is how you can build one habit into becoming a skill of many habits. Once a successfully installed habit is triggered, you will not feel yourself doing it, it will go off as it was designed to do.
If you haven’t had injuries to your neck, try this experiment while standing. Some people can also do this sitting, but come away from the chair back. Make it safe for yourself so you won’t fall over backwards.
OK, now look up to the ceiling or sky, tilting your head back. OK, are you looking up now with your eyes? Now drop your face and tilt your head forwards again. See if you can notice how your body moves slightly to counterbalance your head as it goes over the top of the arc from back to front. Somewhere in the middle from back to front, there is a tipping point where your body starts to move, very slight, as your weight shifts.
If you can’t sense your body moving in response to your head tipping, you can stand near a wall. Brush it. Then you’ll feel the sensation of your skin brushing slightly against what you’re next to – as your whole body compensates to what how your head it tipping.
It is subtle. It’s a kind of listing you’ll want to notice. Describe it. It’s a very slight move, like a palm tree when it blows and the whole tree moves, a very subtle movement. Most people don’t know their body always slightly moves to follow their head moving. Did you?
ALICE: Like this?
FRAN: Yes. Now, we’re going to use this “listing.” We’re going to launch into a walk. Tilt your head back again while standing, drop your face forward, and use that ‘coming loose’ listing movement to think up. Don’t walk yet!
Now, do it again, think up as you go over the top of the arc, and this time, launch into a walk. It’s a sort of nonchalant launch into movement. If you can start moving in this way, it’s like driving a car, letting out the clutch very easily. The force comes after you start, because then the clutch engages. Try it a number of times. Now, can you describe any changes in your walk from the first time?
That is a little experiment how some people can sense what Alexander Technique has to offer without a teacher’s hands-on. If it doesn’t work for you, maybe you need the help of hands-on. In class, we learn to practise and use this launching into motion. Later we do it without having to tip our heads, just by thinking of going up. Since the head moving first determines all other responses that follow, Alexander called this principle Primary Control.
—– Part Five —–
ALICE: In your seminar with the singers you talked about integrating timing? How do you integrate timing?
FRAN: We had people walk across the room. We had a very long area, so we had people walking around the lobby at the Gates Performing Arts centre using this tipping of the head to launch into motion. The challenge is, once you launch like this and get some improvement, how do you continue the effortlessness? After a few steps, you’re back where you started. So this challenge has to do with timing.
So, first we clapped to mark when a foot lands on the carpet. No problem. So when the foot comes down we make a sound, then we open up our hands on the upbeat before the other foot comes down. Clapping needs some practice, because there is the time you open your hands to clap, and then the time the sound is made from closing your hands to clap. Then we reverse the timing of the clap and opening of the hands. We clap on the off beat and open our hands when our foot hits the ground.
Although it sounds simple, it turns out to be tricky to coordinate, even for musicians. Most people usually don’t walk and play their instrument at the same time. Singers stand still or sit.
ALICE: Why would rhythm be important?
FRAN: Because the way you begin to do something will influence how it continues to go. The more beginnings you can make, the more you can insert anything else. Being able to note anything rhythmically will allow you to to make a space for it.
Multi-tasking is confusing, but you can insert a new thing, moment by moment, bit by bit pretty easily. Repeating something regularly will set any new thing into being a skill; it’s called a behaviour chain. You need to do it only about six or seven times the same way and anything weird will start to feel familiar. Musicians get this.